AURORA, Colo. – University of Colorado Cancer Center scientists have been awarded a coveted American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act (ARRA) Challenge Grant to find biomarkers for head and neck cancer stem cells.

Xiao-Jing Wang, MD, PhD, Antonio Jimeno, MD, PhD, John Song, MD, and Stephen Malkoski MD PhD are the co-investigators on the grant, which will be funded at $870,000 over two years. The National Institutes of Health received approximately 21,000 Challenge Grant applications and will fund less than 3 percent of them with ARRA stimulus money. ARRA Challenge Grants were developed to move innovative, high-impact science from the laboratory to the clinic quicker.

Many scientists believe that most types of cancer are started by cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells may make up less than 0.1 percent, or one in 1,000 cells, or a solid tumor’s bulk, making them hard to find.

“Scientists have identified markers for cancer stem cells in hematopoetic cancers and skin cancer, but head and neck cancer stem cells are significantly short of markers,” said Wang, who is director of the UCCC Head and Neck Cancer Program. “If you know the marker, you can target it for treatment.”

More than 55,000 Americans will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer this year, and about 13,000 will die from it, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Most head and neck cancers—defined as tumors found in the mouth, nasal passages and throat—used to be related to smoking and high alcohol consumption, but a growing number of cases are caused by the human papiloma virus, HPV, which also causes cervical cancer. These cases affect younger and healthier individuals, and thus head and neck cancer will become a bigger public health problem in the next few years.

Wang and Jimeno, respectively a professor of pathology and an assistant professor of medical oncology at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, have two different models of head and neck cancer. Jimeno studies human tumors transplanted into the animal models, which then mimic human cancer development. Wang studies tumors that grow because of genetic mutations in the animal. By using both models in this study, the pair will be able to compare any markers they find to accurately identify them as head and neck cancer markers.

“Basically we are the only center in the world that has these two complementary models of oral cancer, and we strongly believe this will help move the science along quickly,” said Jimeno, who is both a medical oncologist treating patients with head and neck cancer and a laboratory scientist. “In addition, because of the truly multidisciplinary nature of our program and my active involvement with the UCCC Developmental Therapeutics Program, we will be able to rapidly translate any significant findings to the clinic, be it a new treatment or a new biomarker to individualize therapy. This ability to bring innovations to patients as translational researchers will ultimately make our program and CU Denver stand out.”

Collaborating with the pair on the project are Song, an oral surgeon and associate professor of otolaryngology at CU Denver, who will help collecting cancer samples from consenting patients for Jimeno’s model, and Malkowski, assistant professor of pulmonary medicine at CU Denver, who will be involved studying the environment in which the tumors grow.

The team also collaborates with another scientist, Yosef Refaeli, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology, who has new technology to generate antibodies against cancer stem cell markers identified by the funded studies, which will provide novel treatments to target and kill cancer stem cells.

“This is really the right timing to support our team effort of groundbreaking work,” Wang said. “Ours is an innovative, high-risk, high-return project that probably would not have gotten funding through regular NIH mechanisms because for those grants, you need extensive preliminary data, which was difficult for us who were just recruited to UCCC in several months prior to this grant submission. We are very confident that we will be able to succeed at finding markers, and that we will be able to use our findings to help patients much quicker than usual because of this unprecedented funding.”

About the University of Colorado Cancer Center

The University of Colorado Cancer Center is the Rocky Mountain region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center. NCI has given only 40 cancer centers this designation, deeming membership as “the best of the best.” Headquartered on the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, UCCC is a consortium of three state universities (Colorado State University, University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Colorado Denver) and five institutions (The Children’s Hospital, Denver Health, Denver VA Medical Center, National Jewish Health and University of Colorado Hospital). Together, our 400+ members are working to ease the cancer burden through cancer care, research, education and prevention and control. Learn more at

Contact: Lynn Gorham, 303.724.3160, [email protected]

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